Skip to content
Skip to content

Reviews of ‘Goodness’

But what should be a life of professional and domestic satisfaction is in fact deeply troubled. George and Shirley are quarrelling all the time; what had once been a happy marriage – “a triumph of contemporary civilization, busy young urban people, working hard, living well, faithful to each other, honest” – has gone bad, for reasons George does not wholly comprehend. Hoping to improve matters, he at last agrees to Shirley’s plea that they have a child and in time a daughter is bon; they call her Hilary “because it means cheerful, apparently. Like us.
Poor George. Poor Shirley. Poor, poor Hilary. What the doctor says at delivery is: “It’s a right mess this one I’m afraid. Never seen anything like it.” Her feet point the wrong way and her thighs are disjointed; after four months her head still wobbles. At last they try radical surgery, but it is a risky proposition and it doesn’t pay off. George and Shirley are stuck with a vegetable; Hilary is stuck with what passes for a life.
For George it is a terrible test. As a boy, growing up in an odd and unhappy family, he had made a vow: “I decided that after I had escaped my family and was in control of my life, I would never be gratuitously mean or violent, as Grandfather was, but then nor would I ever put up with anybody or any situation that made life unbearable, as Mother did. I would be honest and reasonable, generous where generosity was due, and I would always choose the road that led to a happy, healthy, normal life.”

But now just such a situation has arisen. George finds to his horror that the choices are scarcely so clear as he had once imagined them to be. On the one hand he has a daughter whose life can be nothing save misery and whose very existence spells an end to any real happiness for him and Shirley; on the other hand she is his own child and, yes, he does love her, against all odds. What is he to do? Is Hilary’s life worth saving? How, if at all, is he to get on with his life?

They are awful questions, and they force George to re-examine the notions of goodness by which he had so complacently tried to shape himself. The reader comes to realize, if George himself does not, that what he imagines as an act of charity toward Hilary is in truth one of great selfishness, yet it is Parks’s considerable achievement to arouse empathy rather than contempt, and then to give George a moment of true goodness that is also redemption. How the issue is at last resolved is a bit of a surprise, but one that in the circumstances seems exactly, definitively right.

Like everything else in Goodness, its final paragraphs ring true. Within less than 200 pages Tim Parks has created a remarkably large cast of singularly well-rounded characters, and has made the reader care about all of them; he has wrestled with a theme of immense dimensions and made sense of it (sense?) ; and he has told a story that is at once wrenching and wholly believable. All in all, an exceptional accomplishment and a lovely book.